The Rodney Dangerfield School of Optimism

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Today’s guest contributor is Jennifer Gresham.  Jennifer is a PhD biochemist who left a successful job at the Air Force Research Lab to pursue her passion for writing. She now helps people find the clarity and courage they need to transform their own lives at her blog Everyday Bright.

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You’re giddy.

Your team is about to unleash the results of months of creative thinking. You can’t help wondering how life is going to change after your product hits the market: the thrill of scrambling to meet demand, interviews by The New York Times, and leaning back in your office chair to bask in success.

Yep, this is going to be big.

And then … it fails.  Spectacularly. No sales, no interviews, just a disappointing lesson waiting to be dissected so you can try, try again.

You’ve probably heard about the benefits of failure, about how you have to discover what doesn’t work so you can, after multiple hard knocks, implement the right approach.

But what if I told you that you didn’t have to experience failure to benefit from it?  What if all you had to do was imagine everything crashing down in order to avoid it?

Lessons (not) learned

A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient.  – Gary Klein, Harvard Business Review, Sep 2007

Postmortems, as they’re known in the business world, “are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again.” The idea is that by dissecting our failures, we can prevent future ones.

It must be noted that despite many autopsies every year, people keep dying. And if your business relies solely on postmortems to find and fix its problems, the same is likely to be true.

There are many reasons these “lessons learned” exercises don’t work. First, there’s a lot of emotion to deal with after a failure. This can lead to either a lot of finger pointing or at the other extreme, a lot of silence in an effort to spare people’s feelings. In either case, you never get at the core issue, morale remains low, and you start your next effort at a disadvantage.

Second, you have to deal with self-serving bias, the tendency to ascribe one’s success to personal efforts and one’s failures to chance or circumstances beyond one’s control. You’ll hear people say, “It was a great idea, the market just wasn’t ready for it yet.” Maybe, maybe not.

Finally, there’s one more hurdle, and it’s a big one. Preventing a problem from reoccuring usually results in very different solutions than designing a process or product from scratch. We often limit our thinking to what already is, because it feels wasteful to start over after investing so many resources to create it.

Most postmortems can’t work because “killing the baby” isn’t a solution that’s on the table.

Curb your enthusiasm

My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too. – Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield was a stand-up comic who portrayed a loser who couldn’t get any respect. Nothing ever worked out for Rodney.  Strange as it may seem, this is exactly the person you need to channel before you get too far in your business plans.

The most effective way to get in touch with your inner loser is to conduct a premortem, as devised by Gary Klein, the psychologist and researcher whose early work on intuitive decision making inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. As Klein says, “A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.”

It works like this:

Step 1 – Imagine failure.  The team lead tells everyone he has consulted his crystal ball and it turns out the project has failed.  The failure is catastrophic: everything that could possibly go wrong has. Unfortunately, the company bought the cheap crystal balls, and he can’t make out the reasons for the failure.  He asks the team to consider what could have caused this disaster.

Step 2 – Generate reasons for failure. Team members write down all the possible reasons they can think of on a piece of a paper.  The objective is to be as imaginative and broad as possible. It’s important to perform this exercise with everyone who is directly involved with the project. Each person will bring their own knowledge, intuition, and mental models to the problem.

Step 3 – Consolidate the lists. Going around the room, each person shares the potential causes of failure on their lists. The only discussion at this point should be for clarification.

Step 4 – Plan for the worst.  The group can now choose 2 or 3 items from the list that generate the most concern and develop plans for preventing them. The other items should be assigned to team members to work on outside of the meeting.  The team can either meet again to discuss the other issues or generate a collaborative space. The idea is to continue to revisit the list and make sure that, as much as possible, the problems are being addressed before they happen.

While you may be worried that such a process will be too depressing, in fact creating a safe climate for people to voice concerns can go a long way towards improving morale. You want team members to curb the enthusiasm that often blinds them to potential problems while encouraging them to be open and honest.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a German Field Marshall in WWI,  is famous for saying, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  Unless, of course, you’re smart enough to perform a premortem.

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About the author: Jennifer Gresham is a PhD biochemist who left a successful job at the Air Force Research Lab to pursue her passion for writing. She now helps people find the clarity and courage they need to transform their own lives at her blog Everyday Bright. You can also find her on Twitter @JenGresham.

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25 responses

25 responses to “The Rodney Dangerfield School of Optimism”

  1. Jaky Astik says:

    We all are different and we’ve different tendencies towards failure. Yet, failure is depressive and it depresses quite well. The best way to defend a failure is to believe and affirm the wonderful things you learned because of it. The worst is a stepping stone to the best. Nice post Jennie!

    • Jen Gresham says:

      Jaky,
      I agree it’s worthwhile to learn what you can from failure. I certainly try to do that. But I think it’s much better to learn from potential failures and avoid the actual failure all together. Doesn’t always work – not possible to prevent them all. But well worth trying!

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  3. Alex says:

    love the idea of doing a premortem as partm of the planning process.

    Excellent post.

    Al

  4. Rosemary says:

    Hey Jenny,What a clever way of expanding or getting the most out of your ‘plan’ by getting people to think ahead to what might go wrong and then to fix it in advance. I tend to do this before I do anything or go anywhere important as a way of getting past any fears or worries that I may have and I always ask myself ‘what is the worst thing that could happen?’I find that once I’ve thought it through to the end, considered all the possibilities and realised that as long as it’s likely that everyone will come through in one piece with all their faculties still in working order…then we can always start again. Thanks for a great post!

    • Jen Gresham says:

      I wish I could say this process came naturally to me. It doesn’t. As I often say in my bio, I’m an optimist at heart. Even worse, a dreamer! So this advice is crucial for me.

      But yes, what we worry about regardign failure is rarely as bad as we imagine. That is, your business may indeed fail and go into bankruptcy, but there’s more to life than business.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  5. Daria says:

    We did a very similar exercise when trying to establish a new service area. Instead of using the words imagine failure though, we said let’s identify our obstacles and challenges we need to overcome to be successful. The next step was then to craft an action plan that addressed the potential “derailers” from the onset.

    It was really amazing how well it worked. And you’re right, it eliminated blame because we could look back and say – but see? We identified this before you did it – therefore we’re not being personal.

    Our topic was how to get our other project managers to sell our new service to their clients. One of the challenges we identified was “fear that they may like us better”. It was easier to discuss it since it wasn’t a pointed finger – you aren’t sharing – discussion.

    • Jen Gresham says:

      Daria,
      Good point. The culture matters, a lot, when you perform this exercise. If “failure” gets everyone’s mouth in a pucker, then choosing a substitute is wise.

      And bravo for getting to the core fear you were addressing with that team. Not easy!

  6. Christopher says:

    It’s about the small things, right? Love this process.

    My business is surviving, not thriving. But with a well-rounded approach like this towards identifying my weaknesses, I can see thriving.

    Thank you Jen.

    • Jen Gresham says:

      Christopher,

      I believe the little things matter a lot. Definitely hope this helps you get a handle on where the weaknesses are and how to minimize them. None of us are without weaknesses– success is about how you manage them.

  7. JenP says:

    I love this idea – the idea of learning from an imagined failure.

    But I also love the idea in Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, where she aims to enjoy failure.

    If I actually said to myself, I’m going to seek some failures i.e. take some risks and do some things that I probably won’t be able to pull off, I might surprise myself and find I have some successes on my hands.

    I think that way, I could celebrate failure because I would be celebrating the fact that I had taken a risk in the first place. Whether it’s the risk of sending that book manuscript to a publisher, quitting my job or booking that airline ticket….

    • Jen Gresham says:

      Jen,

      I’m a big fan of Gretchen too, and I like her message of how to overcome our fear of failure. Sometimes we have to fail in order to understand that the consequences aren’t nearly as bad as we think they are.

      That happened to me recently. I had an opportunity to meet someone from the online world I really admired. But I got so tongue tied and flustered, the person literally walked away from me. LOL I felt bad for a while, but realized they were just one person. Once the worst in that scenario had literally happened, I became much more bold about introducing myself to others.

      All that said, there’s a difference between taking risks and experiencing failure. You can do the former without doing the latter, which in most cases is the desired outcome. 🙂

  8. Brett says:

    The key to conducting a good premortem is to make sure that your fixes are for problems that are actually under your control. There are some catastrophes that are out of our team’s hands – and it’d be foolish to waste precious time and energy on things that we could only improve marginally or not at all.

    Making sure energy is spent on things that can actually be fixed ensures that you don’t run around trying to fix everything to the point where the project never gets launched.

    • Jen Gresham says:

      Great point, Brett! That should be the #1 criteria when downselecting the items on the list you plan to attack. Thanks for bringing that up!

  9. Right now my “team” consists of all the voices in my head. I’m getting ready to launch as a solopreneur. I’m an optimist; my team members all seem pessimistic. Maybe we’re the right balance for each other? I like what Brett said about identifying the things that are within our control to fix/prepare for, otherwise we never ship.

    Jen, I can relate to your big moment with the online bigwig! If I know ahead of time, I usually prepare an “elevator speech”—the 30-second pitch before the elevator doors open and the person walks away.

    • Jen Gresham says:

      I love the way you describe your team…lol. Probably a good balance, though we know too many pessimists can really beat an optimist down. But that’s one reason the premortem is effective for solopreneurs too–it keeps the voices in your head quiet. They get to have their say.

      The elevator pitch would have been great, but I actually stumbled on introducing myself. Never happened to me before, but instead of saying, “Hi, I’m Jen,” I said, “Hi, I’m BigWig!” So embarassing! (but funny now)

  10. Oh, I love this post. The businesswoman in me loves it. I believe strongly in the premortem process; perhaps even too strongly (I can be a pessimist to a fault). I just think it’s critical to know what you’re really dealing with. I have only ever worked for (or started!) small businesses, where “everything” seems to ride on the success of a particular idea or ideas. The ability to be adaptable, recognize weaknesses, and plan ahead is key, and it gets lost in the momentum a lot, especially in a small company where the slightest failure can really damage morale. You have to be agile and move quickly in successes AND failures.

    Thanks for sharing, Jen. Fantastic post!

  11. Juanita says:

    Hi Jen,

    Great post! I tend to do a formal risk assessment but I really like the casual, relaxed feel of the premortem. It would be a great way to get everyone on the same page rather than handing over a risk document and expecting people to read it.

    I think I would like to combine the two – doing the premortem and then putting the results in with the risk assessment – the premortem would also generate a lot of great mitigating risk ideas.

    Hmmm…I will definately be reviewing the way I commence a project now…

    Thanks for such a great post!

    • Jen Gresham says:

      You absolutely can combine the two. The key is to keep the atmostphere open, so people feel free to share, and to make sure you act. As someone who came from a formal bureaucracy, we used to generate risk assessments all the time. We just didn’t do anything with them after we authored them. LOL

  12. Jen Gresham says:

    So glad you enjoyed it. You are, of course, uber organized, so I’m not surprised. 🙂

  13. Vee Sweeney says:

    I think everyone has said at one time or another that they have learned from their mistakes but then people have the tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again. It doesn’t just related to the work environment or product development; it relates to everything. I was having a conversation today where a friend said to me “I know there are going to be problems, I just need to learn to deal with them better.” I responded by asking why the problems are not dealt with before they ever become problems? It’s easier to let things fail and then try to find a reason later. It takes more effort to assess things in the “pre” stage which is why I personally feel like more people, more companies etc opt to choose dealing with failure afterwards.

  14. Mohan Arun says:

    Good thing someone wrote about this. I usually think about ‘in how many ways can this possibly fail’ rather than ‘in how many ways can this possibly go through’, where ‘it’ is ‘any endeavour’. Basically we have to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

  15. Aki Wood says:

    I like the reverse approach. In my ventures, I usually use visualization to see the end result, and let my subconscious work out the details. However, I can see value in pin pointing the main causes of failure. Interesting stuff.